Daniel Kaszeta is a Wikistrat Senior Analyst and an independent security and antiterrorism consultant currently located in London. He is a former US Army Chemical Corps officer as well as a former member of various US government agencies, including the US Secret Service. Mr. Kaszeta has 22 years of experience in numerous aspects of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defense. He is an occasional contributor to CBRNe World magazine as well as several other publications. His book “CBRN and Hazmat Incidents at Major Public Events: Planning and Response” was published in November 2012.
Graham O’Brien: I was wondering what your opinion would be on the idea of introducing an active counter-proliferation plan in Syria.
Answer: Generally, I would take the term “active counterproliferation” to mean use of dynamic means and active measures, such as armed force, to control, capture, or eliminate Syria’s presumed chemical (and possibly biological) arsenal. My opinion is that successful “active counterproliferation” will be very difficult to achieve in the current situation in Syria, for a variety of reasons. I have the following specific concerns:
For all of these reasons, I think that “active counterproliferation measures” are troublesome and don’t really work in Syria as an option, other than as part of a full military intervention. They might even make things worse.
Natasha Tereshchenko: What, if anything, do you recommend external players, such as the US, do about the alleged chemical weapons use in Syria?
Answer: The problem can be distilled into three components: verification, attribution, and reaction.
Verification: The West must verify what has actually happened. Have chemical weapons actually been used? The existing evidence to date is interesting but not exactly compelling. Available evidence seems to be misguiding, tainted, questionable, and/or vague. I will not attempt to repeat the excellent analysis done by the “Brown Moses” blog or my colleague Steve Johnson at CBRNe World magazine (see page 16 here).
There seems to be a lack of “smoking gun” evidence so far. Or if it does exist, it is still locked away in the depths of the world’s intelligence agencies. To simplify an entire field of chemical warfare forensics… we haven’t seen evidence that would ever hold up in court. If someone has died from nerve, blood, blister, or choking agents, a proper autopsy, conducted forensically, can tell us what happened. Nerve agents will leave an imbalance of acetylcholine and acetylcholinesterase, enzymes that enables the function of the nervous system and the mechanism by which nerve agents kill their victims. Someone killed by blister agents (mustard or lewisite) will have serious and obvious damage to their respiratory tract. Blood agents (cyanides) may be a bit more discrete, but competent toxicology will determine the presence of cyanides in a dead body. Choking agents (phosgene) will kill by pulmonary edema, which can be determined by autopsy. Granted, Islam calls for rapid burial of the dead, so not every corpse would be available for analysis. But if people have been killed by chemical warfare agents, where are the bodies?
Many chemical weapons are non-persistent (sarin and the cyanides), but many others are persistent and will last a long time in the environment. Where is the residue? If chemical weapons have been used, somebody somewhere should come up with a sample of liquid, vapor, contaminated soil, or a swab from human skin. Where is the sample? Likewise, chemical warfare requires the means of dissemination. Bombs, bomblets, artillery shells, spray tanks, rockets, missile warheads, mines, and similar devices have been historically used for dissemination of chemical weapons. There are some videos and photos of possible devices (some certainly flawed if you look at the article and blog cited above). But does someone somewhere have a device we can look at? A fragment of a device? Chemical munitions leave residue, almost by definition. If you use enough explosive bursting agent to completely destroy the munition into uncollectable fragments, it is not the optimum means of dispersal. Believe me, I’m a former Chemical Corps officer. Chemical shells “pop” rather than “bang”. Where are the shell fragments and empty bomblets?
Attribution: There is a serious issue of who is doing what to whom. The fog of war is very thick in Syria. It is no longer a simple matter of uniformed regulars versus improvised insurgents. Many uniformed combatants from the Syrian army have defected, and the Assad regime is using a variety of irregulars that could appear very much like the insurgents they are combating. Because the use of CBRN weapons carries great moral opprobrium and has been declared a “red line” by the West, there may be great strategic gains to be made by smearing the other side with accusations. Indeed, the strategic value of getting world opinion on your side may be much higher than the tactical value of using chemical weapons in battle. Getting someone to foam from the mouth on video is a cheap Hollywood parlor trick, but if it convinces the world’s media that nerve agents have been used by your enemy, it might be worth it to one side or the other.
Reaction: As far as what to actually do in Syria? First of all, many of the issues involved in this complex problem are alluded to in the answer to the previous question. I think that active intervention measures, such as airstrikes or attempts to seize control by means of special operations forces, are fraught with liabilities. I think that, perhaps, the best intervention is passive defense. We should provide the insurgents with protective masks, gloves, suits, boots, and nerve agent antidotes. We should provide chemical defense training, possible in camps in Turkey or Jordan. Most importantly, we need to provide a lot of plastic bags (and correct procedures) to take samples. We need people to bring us the soil samples and shell fragments.
Jesse Parent: What are the major challenges for non-proliferation of CBRN faced by the world today?
Answer: CBRN non-proliferation is a difficult field and a full survey of the challenges would fill a lengthy book, so I will focus my answer on what I think the most difficult challenges are. From my perspective, the biggest challenges are in the area of chemical and biological non-proliferation. Specifically, my biggest concerns are ease of entry and detection.
Ease of Entry: If a country wants to develop nuclear weapons technology, the barriers to entry are high. Not only is there a requirement for fissile material, the infrastructure and labor needed to develop a nuclear weapon, let alone one useful in a warhead, is vast. It takes billions of dollars, large facilities (which are distinctive and hard to hide), specialty equipment (procurement of which may be hard to camouflage), and hundreds or even thousands of scientists and engineers (some of whom will be targeted by intelligence services of other countries).
The problem with biological and chemical weapons is that the level of effort is lower. It takes fewer people with expertise, less exotic ingredients, generic facilities, and more mundane equipment (and equipment that is either ubiquitous or easily manufactured). We should not forget that chlorine gas and phosgene are technologies that are over a hundred years old and are widespread in modern industry. Mustard gas and Lewisite date from the end of the First World War. Nerve agents are the cutting edge of 1930s technology. Strategic-level mass production of anthrax dates from the late 1940s.
Detection: Because of the lower barriers to entry in the chemical and biological arena, detection is much more difficult. Many available intelligence collection techniques simply cannot see through walls, into a petri dish, or into the distillation column of an otherwise mundane-looking laboratory or factory. There are simply fewer tools at the disposal of the intelligence and diplomatic agencies to figure out if someone is hiding CW or BW development.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Wikistrat recently concluded a geostrategic simulation titled “Korean Conflict Pathways”. This crowdsourced simulation strategized how escalation dynamics on the Korean peninsula might just trigger an East Asian war that nobody wants but seemingly everyone is planning for. Thus, the goal here was not simply to reimagine the Korean conflict in light of Kim Jong-Un’s recent provocations, but to contextualize that development within larger regional trends.
One entry, named “DPRK Triggers East Asian Cyber War”, explored the possibility of conflict dynamics leading to a cyber war between major powers in the region.
Unsure of the U.S. threats of retaliation, Kim Jong-un orders a cyber attack against ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) in an attempt to determine what retaliatory response might come from the United States. Both the United States and the ROK are quick to blame the DPRK for the cyber attack. The President of the United States, Korea Command and the ROK CJCS react swiftly. U.S. intelligence agencies launch a joint attack against critical North Korean infrastructure and disrupt the electronic guidance systems of North Korean missiles (critically escalating the situation). The attack quickly spirals out of control and external stakeholders are recruited to contain the crisis.
Cyber raids are the DPRK’s most-often used asymmetric tactic against its opponents’ infrastructures, because of its inexpensive implementation and relatively low risk of increased sanctions/condemnation by the international community. The DPRK and its proxies strike hard with a joint-attack against the CFC’s network and South Korean financial institutions. The attacks momentarily paralyze CFC’s C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence) and the South Korean economy.
The ROK Government is unsure how to respond. Since North Korea uses proxy forces for its cyber attacks, the ROK is unable to target directly the original perpetrators In North Korea. The ROK, together with U.S. intelligence agencies, strike back at critical North Korean military infrastructure. To make sure North Korea understands that they mean business, the combined effort expands to target North Korea’s deployed missiles. Using a variation of the infamous Stuxnet virus, U.S. intelligence agencies deploy the virus to shut down targeting systems within the missiles and create momentary havoc at the North Korean missile operation centers.
The United States publicly blames the DPRK for wreaking cyber havoc on CFC and the ROK. However, it might paradoxically increase the likelihood of the United States “paying” concessions because of its eagerness to avoid a kinetic conflict. A big question mark is the actions of independent hacking groups like Anonymous, which could unwittingly escalate the conflict if word were to get out and a mass distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack were attempted. U.S. Cyber Command, in tandem with other U.S. intelligence agencies and their ROK counterparts, explores pathways through which it can wreak havoc on the DPRK’s cyber capabilities.
Purposeful escalation by Kim Jong-un leads to concessions being paid to avoid a larger conflict after the United States and ROK inflict damage on the DPRK’s grid and computer networks. But at the same time, the DPRK’s cyber attacks will have triggered a cyber arms race across the Pacific, whereby state actors cultivate their own corps of hackers to undercut each other’s soft and hard power.
Once China and the United States come to a mutual understanding regarding the source and the origin of the cyber attack on CFC’s C4I and on the Bank of Korea, they diplomatically pressure the DPRK to end its cyber campaigns to avoid escalation. However, residual suspicions between the United States and China may still prompt both countries to beef up cyber defense/offense against each other. Both China and the United States might remain forever suspicious of each other’s motives.
Editor’s Note: Wikistrat’s latest community-wide simulation, “Britain Exits the European Union”, has just launched and will run from May 20th until May 30th, 2013.
As continental Europe remains embroiled in the euro-crisis, British doubts about its future in the European Union have increased. Pressured by Eurosceptic members of his ruling party and the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party on the right, Prime Minister David Cameron has announced an “in-out” referendum on the island nation’s EU membership after the 2015 election — by which time he hopes to have achieved ample treaty changes that will allow Britain to opt out of far-reaching European economic and fiscal integration plans and convince British voters that their future is still in the EU.
Cameron’s gamble might not pay off, however. “Other countries are tiring of British demands,”wrote The Economist in December. Germany prefers to avoid a British exit as it could tilt the balance of power in Europe in favor of the Mediterranean member states, but is not prepared to concede much in the way of social and labor-market regulation. The French reject an “a la carte Europe” and maybe even would rather Britain leaves for the very reason Germany fears it.
In this Simulation Wikistrat invites its community of strategists to explore scenario pathways for Britain exiting the EU. Wikistrat analysts will describe the reasons why Britain might exit the European Union, explore the strategy chosen by Britain and the economic, political and security implications of such an event for both the EU and the United Kingdom.
Want to participate? Apply for membership to the analytic community here.